Hanging in Senator John Williams’ office in Parliament House are two photos from the Second World War. Ask him about them and you soon learn he has a deep passion for what our soldiers achieved in various conflicts. He spoke to LAURIE BULLOCK in 2011 about Australia’s wartime history and what inspired his interest in it. As Anzac Day, 2017 approaches, we delved into the archives to find his story.
The Dam Busters
JOHN ‘Wacka’ Williams was eight years old when his father Reg made a comment that was an insight to his time serving overseas during World War II.
John and Reg, who rarely talked about his war experience, were watching the 1955 British movie The Dam Busters on the black and white television set in the home in Jamestown, 200 kilometres north of Adelaide.
The Dam Busters tells the true story of Operation Chastise where the RAF’s 617 squadron attacked the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams in Germany in 1943. Reg Williams pointed out the Lancaster Bombers to his young son.
Reg had served as a rear gunner in a Lancaster during the war but the comment did not register much with his young son who just thought he was watching a good movie. While he was too young to understand it at the time, his family link to Australia’s military service was to become a keen interest.
“That’s when it started, I didn’t link so much to the movie and my father’s history with the Lancaster bombers; I was a little bit young to understand it,” John said.
Later he learnt of the dangers his father had faced and the sacrifice many young Australians have made.
“I’m very passionate about our diggers and what they did for us,” John said in the lead up to Anzac Day in 2011.
John was elected to federal parliament in 2007 and commenced his term in the Senate in July 2008.
One of the photos hanging in his Parliament House office is of his father Reg and uncle Don next to a Lancaster bomber. The other photograph is of Australia’s last surviving Gallipoli veteran Alec Campbell who died in 2002, aged 103.
Reg’s father Eric had served in the First World War on the battlefields in France, while Reg’s brother Don was a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber in 460 squadron (an all Australian squadron that flew more missions and delivered more tons of bombs than any other squadron in bomber command).
Another brother, Mick, was in the navy on HMAS Barcoo.
“My father like most of the diggers rarely talked about the war.
“But one night when we were in a pub in Adelaide, he started telling my brother Peter and me a bit about his time in the war, and it was very interesting.
“He said the worst of it was the cold, sitting at the back of the plane and the open air spaces around him. He said they would cry in the freezing conditions, it might be minus 30 or 40 degrees.
“They were so cold even though they had heated suits on that rarely worked properly. They literally cried from the cold as they would fly over to Germany with balls of alfoil on board, not bombs.
“They would drop the alfoil and the Germans would pick them up on radar and send the fighters planes out after them.
“The other bombers would go in later with the bombs in another direction to Berlin while the German fighters had gone out chasing my father’s planes, so it was a decoy.”
Fast forward to 1998, and John Williams had moved from South Australia to Inverell and was running a local business. On a business trip to Thailand he took the opportunity to visit the River Kwai. There he learnt of the horrors of the Prisoner of War camps.
Back in Australia his interest in our military history, and his family history, increased.
“I got my grandfather’s war records from the First World War. I also have his ‘dog tags’. I then sent away for my father’s war records from World War II.
“Then I starting reading about prisoners of war and what terrible experiences they had endured at the hands of the Japanese.
“I had the honour of meeting several former prisoners of war. It was then that I realised how lucky I was that I had never had to be involved in such conflicts.
“To learn of the history of our diggers from the charge of Beersheba in Turkey to the Rats of Tobruk. About the Vietnam war and the battle of Long Tan, where around 25 Australians were up against 4000 or so Vietcong.”
I realised how lucky I was that I had never had to be involved in such conflicts.
Old Bob, the Gallipoli veteran
When John was learning to be a shearer in 1973 he was in the shed with a man called Bob Bottomley who was a Gallipoli veteran.
“Old Bob would sit on a wool bale as we had our smoko and tell me about his time in the trenches at Gallipoli.
“Old Bob was one of mother nature’s gentlemen and no Anzac Day passes without me thinking of him.
“We called him ‘old Bob’ as his son was also Bob who bought a property in the Graman area back in the early eighties.
“Old Bob was telling me that they were in the trenches and one digger yelled out as the bombs were exploding and the bullets were flying ‘this is like being in hell’.
“Another digger replied ‘at least there are no bloody flies here’.
“It seems as though that wicked Australian sense of humour is always there, no matter what the circumstances.”
John has also taken an interest in our soldiers’ efforts in modern conflicts.
He talks about East Timor in 1999 when 4500 Australian soldiers went into the small country after it voted for independence, forcing out 100,000 Indonesian militia.
Then he casts his mind back to the war his father and uncle fought in.
“You think in the Second World War how close Australia was to falling to the Japanese.
“The Japs took Cambodia, Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, the Philippines and then set their sights on New Guinea. It was here that the Japanese met the galant 39th Battalion of Australians.
“The 39th Battalion was the ‘home guard’. Most could not load a rifle, let alone shoot one. These 400 or so untrained men fought against 4,500 Japanese for weeks in the Owen Stanley ranges of New Guinea.
“At the conclusion of World War II, I think there were only around 70 or so left alive of the 39th battalion.”
Most of Australia’s trained soldiers were over in the Middle East fighting the Germans.
“It was a heroic effort. If the Japanese had taken Port Moresby the next target was Australia. “We came so close to living under a Japanese dictatorship.
“If it had not been for the courage of our diggers, I wonder what sort of an Australia we would be living in today, and make no mistake about it, we owe a lot to the yanks.”
While he will be in Tingha then Inverell for Anzac Day this year, John has travelled to Thailand several times for the services there at Hellfire Pass.
In 2010 he took a former prisoner of war, 87-year-old Cliff Lowien, who, at the age of 17 had worked as a prisoner of war on the big rock cutting called Hellfire Pass on the Thai-Burma railway.
On the home front
Away from the frontline of war, John said that he has also been inspired by the Australian effort on the home front during the wars.
“The people who stayed at home, worked in the ammunition factories, the clothing factories … supplying food for our men and women overseas. It was a magnificent contribution.”
Meanwhile there was often much sorrow as parents watched sons march away to war and in many cases never to return. The loss to those families must have been horrific. Reg Williams was one of the lucky ones.
“My father had been grounded; they landed the plane too steep and he damaged both ears.”
His Lancaster was called ‘Snifter’. The very next mission that ‘Snifter’ flew, while Reg was grounded, the Lancaster collided with an allied aircraft over France and all seven crew were killed.
Several years ago, John found a letter Reg wrote to his father Eric during the war where Reg said that he had been grounded with ear problems and his friends had been reported missing.
“So through pot luck he was grounded with ear problems and he survived,” John said. “When I told him he had cancer in 1994 … he said to my mother ‘at least I got 50 years on that poor bugger who took my place in the Lancaster’.
“My attitude is you look back on the efforts of the Australian diggers over so many conflicts and you can’t help but think of what courageous men and women our nation has produced.
“Anzac Day is the day we honour their courage.”
You can’t help but think of what courageous men and women our nation has produced.